Theater review: 'I Loved Lucy' at Laguna Playhouse
The gap between Lucille Ball and Lucy, her lovable TV alter ego, could be startling for unsuspecting fans. Watching her respond to questions from Dick Cavett with a sandpapery brusqueness or rebuff Merv Griffin as he put an innocent hand on her back was to realize that the dizzy redhead she played was a far cry from the hard-bitten acting professional and studio boss who carved out a permanent place in show-biz posterity.
In “I Loved Lucy,” Lee Tannen’s feeble stage adaptation of his popular memoir, which had its world premiere Saturday at the Laguna Playhouse, Lucille Ball (Diane J. Findlay) is a backgammon demon in a velour track suit whose twilight years are spent in the company of — guess who? — Lee Tannen (Jeffry Denman). He’s a gay man in his 30s, a relative of Ball’s second husband, Gary Morton, and someone who can quote “I Love Lucy” episodes chapter and verse.
Although based on Tannen’s personal history, the play is totally unconvincing in how it’s drawn. This two-hander conveniently banishes Ball’s family and friends, turning her relationship with Tannen into the central one of her golden years. Morton is off golfing, and Ball’s apparent grumpiness about kids jumping all over the furniture keeps daughter Lucie Arnaz and her brood at bay.
OK, so Ball was crotchety and cut-off. But what she found so delightful about Tannen's company remains a mystery. Denman portrays him as a lanky know-it-all who always beat her at games and invariably one-upped her with wit. (No big feat as Ball was the first to admit that she wasn’t very funny off camera.)
Star-struck in as campy a manner as possible, he can’t believe his luck when he gets to hang out with Ball, Chita Rivera and Liza Minnelli at the opening-night party for the Broadway musical “The Rink.” “Come on, can it get any gayer than that?” he asks in one of the play’s few jokes that land.
For the most part, the conversations, larded with biographical exposition, have an assisted-living tedium to them. (Close your eyes and the banter could be that of a home health care aide, smug with youth and vitality, and a geriatric crank, with enough money in the bank to keep her hands on the levers of control.) The inevitable crisis in their friendship — which comes after Tannen offers uncensored thoughts about one of Ball’s unseen hangers-on — doesn’t shed much light on a celebrity whose personality was as notoriously tyrannical as it could be tender.
Impersonating a legend as familiar as Ball is a lost cause, but Findlay looks like she’s channeling Estelle Getty in a tousled fire-engine red wig. Denman’s Lee Tannen seems out to prove that he could easily upstage TV’s greatest comedienne. Too bad the characterization is devoid of charm.
The production, listlessly directed by Todd Weeks, takes place on an eyesore of a set by Bruce Goodrich that fluctuates between New York and Beverly Hills. (It’s hard to imagine Ball minding her grandchildren trampling all over this décor.) A screen projects an image of Ball’s stately Roxbury Drive home, which only adds to the farfetched nature of these excruciating-to-look-at rooms.
But then “I Loved Lucy” doesn’t make a very persuasive case for itself. Tannen’s self-aggrandizing tendencies are aggravated by his inability to flesh out characters and dramatic scenarios onstage. The actors are playing an idea of the relationship, and a wholly contrived one at that. Not even the spirited backgammon competition seems real. The most authentic note is the grief that comes after Ball’s death in 1989, leaving Tannen with a few touching memories and the shared consolation of the most glorious reruns of all time.
— Charles McNulty
“I Loved Lucy,” The Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. (Call for exceptions.) $35 to $65. (949) 497-2787 or www.lagunaplayhouse.com. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.
Photos: Top, Jeffry Denman and Diane J. Findlay. Bottom, Findlay and Denman. Credit: Ed Krieger.